Road trip the Southwest on a budget
From the fun of Sin City to the jaw-dropping beauty of the national parks, this scenic route packs amazing sights and tastes into a manageable itinerary.
If you’re looking for a vacation that includes warm sun, gorgeous desert landscapes, snow-covered mountains, and big-city stye, the American Southwest is a go-to option. Here, you’ll discover the 24/7 excitement, of Vegas, the otherworldly landscapes of national and state parks (think humanoid-like cacti and red rocks), and the vibrant communities and culinary scenes of Phoenix and El Paso. Here, a step-by-step affordable itinerary that includes wallet-friendly lodging, plus the best places to grab a taste of Southwestern flavors.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Start your engine in Las Vegas, where the legendary Strip beckons with endless neon and who-has-time-to-sleep gaming, food, and drink. Even the grandest hotels here typically offer reasonable nightly rates – rooms at Circus Circus Hotel, Casino, and Theme Park, for instance, can start as low as $25/night, but keep in mind that taxes and standard charges can add at least another $40/night to your stay.
Before hitting the road, you may want to catch a concert, theater performance, or stand-up comedy, and remember that Vegas offers plenty of quirky off-the-beaten-path delights such as the Neon Museum with its incredible array of bright lights and kitschy designs, and the surprisingly riveting National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, more commonly known as the Mob Museum. Food options, from shockingly affordable buffets to $700 burgers deliver something for every culinary preference. (Take a Taste Buzz Food Tour for a taste of a little bit of everything.)
Valley of Fire State Park is known for its strange "beehive" rock formations © Carol Polich / Lonely Planet
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas along Route I-15 North, Valley of Fire State Park, in the Mojave Desert, feels like a world away. As you enter the park, you’ll stay on Valley of Fire Scenic Byway, the only main road, which runs about 11 miles, connecting the east and west entrances. Pull over for one of the park’s exceptional hikes, where you can explore the iconic red Aztec sandstone formations that give the park its name – timing your visit to include at least one sunset is as must, as the combination of golden light and deep red of the rocks creates the namesake “fire” display.
In addition to its geological wonders, Valley of Fire is also home to remnants of prehistoric communities, such as roadside petroglyphs and ancient rock art. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like antelope, bobcat, coyote, and Nevada’s state animal, the desert bighorn sheep.
Arrive with picnic foods and snacks and plenty of water, and pack layers of clothing: winter temperatures can veer from the mid-70s to freezing; summer temps range from more than 100 degrees in the day to much cooler at night. You can treat Valley of Fire as a day trip from Vegas, or book one of the park’s 70+ campsites for the night.
Sprawling Phoenix holds many surprises © tonda / Getty Images
From the Vegas/Valley of Fire area, you’ll want to set aside a day for the 300-mile drive along US 93 South to Phoenix, Arizona; if more than four hours in the car feels like a long trip (westerners reckon driving distances differently from those visiting from back east), plan a stop in Kingman, Arizona, where a stop at the Alpacas of the Southwest ranch will delight kids of all ages.
Once in Phoenix, you’ll want to spend at least a full day discovering America’s fifth-largest city (with a population of more than 1.6 million). Hike the trails on Camelback Mountain for the best vistas; visit Papago Park with its red rock buttes, botanical garden, and zoo just minutes from downtown; and drop by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s former winter home, Taliesin West, a Unesco World Heritage site, for its beautiful synthesis of modern design and desert-inspired rooms and gardens. Don’t miss the Heard Museum, celebrating the history and culture of Native American people with an extensive collection of art and artifacts. Fuel up at the award-winning Pizzeria Bianco, in Heritage Square, and when it’s time to rest your head, Phoenix offers an array of affordable lodging such as the stylish Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix.
See the strange saguaro cacti in Saguaro National Park © Dmitry Vinogradov / 500px
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
From Phoenix, you’ll hit I-10 East for the two-hour drive to Saguaro National Park. Get ready to meet the gigantic, humanoid forms of Saguaro cacti, some as high as 50ft and as old as 200 years. Some visitors swear the cacti take on a truly human appearance and personality, which only adds to the otherworldly quality of this Southwestern road trip. The park is also home to 8000ft mountains and unique desert wildlife such as javelinas, desert tortoises, and the Mexican spotted owl.
Start at one of the park’s visitor centers for maps and advice about hikes, museum exhibits, a cactus garden, and ranger-led programs. Lodging options for visiting Saguaro range from posh digs in nearby Tucson, such as the University Inn to camping in the backcountry of the Rincon Mountain District (check in with the park’s visitor center for up-to-date camping options).
Blossoming El Paso is a worthy stop on your Southwestern road trip © Beau Rogers / 500px
El Paso, Texas
From Tucson, you’ll get back on I-10 East for a four-hour drive across New Mexico before you dip into the western corner of Texas, where El Paso awaits. This vibrant city is ready for its closeup. A construction boom in recent years has led to exceptional hotel bargains, such as comfy and reliable stays at the Doubletree or Holiday Inn Express, and a renaissance of community spirit.
Catch a minor-league baseball game and cheer for the hometown Chihuahuas, sip an exceptional local craft beer, and hop a ride on the newly restored streetcar line. Set aside at least a day to get to know this important border city’s art museum and gorgeous Franklin Mountains State Park.
Strange cave formations await you in Carlsbad Caverns National Park © PHOTO 24 / Getty Images
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Hit US-62 East for the two-hour drive from El Paso to one of America’s most extraordinary national parks, Carlsbad Caverns. Aboveground, the park is home to beautiful grassland, the lovely Guadalupe Mountains, and canyons. Below, you’ll explore the unique cave system that rivals any on earth for its scale and visual impact – at 250ft high and 4000ft long, it’s truly like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Ranger-led tours of the caverns, guided hikes among the mountains and canyons, and other hands-on programs keep every member of the family engaged. Reliable lodging is available about a half-hour’s drive from the park, in Carlsbad, NM, ranging from roadside chain motels to Quality Inn & Suites.
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Leaf Peeping and Art Gazing: the Beauty of the Hudson Valley
Burnt sienna. Honey yellow. Salamander orange. Chestnut brown. The hills of New York's Hudson Valley become an arboreal art show every autumn when fall's foliage turns the landscape kaleidoscopic. This limited-time exhibit isn't the only exemplary art in the area, however. From outdoor sculpture gardens to historic houses overlooking the landscape, contemporary artwork blends with the surrounding countryside to serve up an unmissable art/nature combo platter for peak leaf-peeping season. All easy day trips from New York City, it's worth hopping on a train or renting a car to check out these six outdoor - or nature-adjacent - offerings for yourself. Storm King Art Center Storm King is the crowning jewel of the Hudson Valley art scene. Mammoth works by modern art heavyweights like Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein seem to grow from the ground around every corner, blurring the line between nature and art. Autumn is a picture-perfect time to visit - the rusted red leaves of black gum trees mimic the weathered steel of sculptures like Menashe Kadishman’s gravity-defying Suspended. The 500-acre grounds can be a lot to cover in a day, but checking out Museum Hill’s panoramic views is a must. The art center is an hour-and-a-half drive from New York City. There’s a free shuttle bus from the Beacon train station on weekends and holiday Mondays. Art Omi Art Omi's sculpture and architecture park is the Storm King no one told you about. It's worth spending a couple hours wandering the site's 300 acres of fields and forests to find the psychedelic structures sprinkled among the flora. Look out for Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley’s ReActor, a glass apartment precariously perched on a concrete column that sways in the breeze, and Tony Tasset’s 12-foot fiber-glass deer that guards the park’s entrance. Checking out Omi's 60-plus art pieces is free; the grounds are open from dawn until dusk. The site is a fifteen-minute drive from the hip town of Hudson and about two hours from New York City. untitled (to a man, George McGovern) 2 - Dan Flavin at Dia:Beacon © John Garry / Budget Travel Dia:Beacon Dia:Beacon is a contemporary art museum housed in a former Nabisco box printing factory. Located on 31 acres along the Hudson River, the nearly 300,000 sq-ft industrial complex is home to art installations that can't help but comment on the vast spaces they occupy. Richard Serra effectively conjures the Grand Canyon in his Torqued Ellipses, minimalist Dan Flavin bathes bare brick rooms in soft fluorescent lights, and Louise Bourgeois’s Crouching Spider takes up an area the size of a West Village apartment. This boastful use of space is a breath of fresh air for New York urbanites used to living small. The 80-minute train ride from Manhattan to Beacon is equally enchanting. For Hudson River views, grab a seat on the left side of the train while heading north from Grand Central Terminal. Opus 40 Sculptor Harvey Fite (1903 - 1976) spent 37 years transforming an abandoned quarry near Woodstock, NY, into a 6.5-acre masterpiece of swirling bluestone. Fite cut and placed every stone by hand using ancient Mayan building techniques. Tucked between Overlook and Roundtop Mountain in the heart of the Catskills, the site is a peaceful homage to his astounding achievement in masonry. You can explore the monument’s labyrinthine walkways, see Fite’s other sculptures showcased around the 70-acre property, and learn about the history of quarrying in the Quarryman’s Museum. Opus 40 is a two-hour drive from New York City. Thomas Cole National Historic Site Thomas Cole (1801-1848), famous for painting romantic landscapes of the American wilderness, founded the Hudson River School and inspired the country's earliest artistic movement. The Federal-style house and barn where he lived and worked has been a National Historic Site since 1999. Visiting the museum is magically meta - expansive views from the house's veranda showcase the same Catskill Mountain scenery depicted in his paintings. Be sure to check out the Hudson River Skywalk, a 3.2-mile trail that crosses Rip Van Winkle Bridge and connects to Olana State Historic Site, the place his protégé Frederic Edwin Church called home. The site is a two-hour drive from New York City, and accessible by a two-hour train ride and ten-minute taxi from the train station in Hudson. Olana State Historic Site Olana’s palatial hilltop home is an architectural anomaly on 250 acres of prime Hudson River real estate. Designed by owner Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900) and architect Calvert Vaux, the 19th-century structure pairs Arabian Nights drama with Victorian opulence. The grounds are nothing to scoff at, either. An artistic environmentalist from the Hudson River School, Church meticulously sculpted the meadows and woodlands, and even created an artificial lake, with the same attention to detail exhibited in his landscape paintings. A five-mile carriage road snakes through the property and ends at the pièce de résistance, Church’s house. Inside you’ll find the Church family’s extensive art collection. Head up to the belltower for unparalleled views of the Catskill Mountains undulating below. This National Historic Landmark is a 10-minute drive from Hudson.
The 5 Spookiest Road Trips in America
Driving alone on a dark highway at night is the start of many a creepy ghost story. But what if some of those eerie tales are based on true stories? Hitchhiking specters, mutant wild animals, phantom vehicles, and vengeful ghosts are all part of the lore entrenched along some US motorways. Some roads are spooky enough just passing by haunted sites, like New York’s “haunted history trail” that leads to dozens of hair-raising spots around the state. And then there are other thoroughfares where the paranormal comes to you – in ways you may never forget. Here are a few of the country’s most worrisome roadways, where what you glimpse in the rear-view mirror may not be just your imagination. 1. Clinton Road, New Jersey Among a half-dozen supposedly haunted roads in New Jersey, Clinton Road in Passaic County casts the darkest shadows. The 10-mile stretch of highway, just an hour’s drive from Manhattan, may seem ordinary, until, for example, the ghost boy near the Clinton Reservoir pelts you with coins or leers at you from his watery reflection. Perhaps this little boy is in cahoots with the lady ghost who’s said to zoom around in her doomed Camaro, which crashed on Clinton Road in 1988 (mention her on the drive and you may trigger a sighting). Phantom trucks and detached headlights could light the way to more sightings, like ghostly park rangers or other specters who met their demise on bridges or the sharp “dead man’s curve.” Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, Clinton Road’s sordid history as a meeting place for the KKK and Satanists left spooky vibes. Not to mention the mutant animal spooks some believe crossbred when the West Milford Jungle Habitat safari park shuttered in 1976, leaving behind supernatural creatures that roam the road by night. New Jersey is home to several more spooky roads, so you can heighten your frights with Halloween road trips along Shades of Death Road in Warren County, Indian Curse Road in Deptford, Mt. Misery Road in Pemberton, and other eerie routes. (But only Clinton Road inspired a movie of the same name, released in 2019 and starring Ice-T.) 2. Archer Road, Illinois Some think that south Chicago is scary, but it’s got nothing on spooky Archer Road. Just south of town in Justice, Illinois, the boulevard dates back centuries as a Native American trail. In 1930, it was paved and became Archer Road (aka Archer Avenue), home to a shadowy legacy where phantom hitchhikers and ghouls suddenly appear. But its legend arrived with “Resurrection Mary,” Chicago’s most famous ghost. The story goes that back in the 1930s, dolled-up, blonde-haired Mary left a nearby party angry after a fight and was struck by a passing car. Ever since, drivers have claimed to see her hitching a ride in the night. On occasion, she’s even hopped in and given directions to Archer Road’s 540-acre Resurrection Cemetery – where she suddenly vanished. Mary’s mystery got more peculiar in 1976, when a local called Justice police about the lady he saw inside the cemetery, grasping its iron fence. The police soon arrived to find the cemetery deserted, only to find the fence bars scorched and bent in the shape of hand prints. 3. Kelly Road, Pennsylvania Whether it’s the alleged cult activity or ancient curse cast on Kelly Road, the “Mystery Mile” of Ohioville, Pennsylvania, is famous for mighty bizarre stories. The strip is shaded by thick, uninhabited woods that local folks say is home to paranormal disturbances and untold history. But it’s the animals that seem most disturbed when traveling on Kelly Road. Even the most docile of pets are said to become angry and even violent there, chasing humans and other animals with sudden aggression. Are they seeing spirits or hearing noises fit only for animal ears? Who’s to say. But most agree that, thankfully, the aggressive behavior subsides by reaching the one-mile marker into refreshingly unhaunted territory. 4. Bray Road, Wisconsin Animals turning rabid can be terrifying, but even more disturbing is catching sight of a seven-foot-tall werewolf on a quiet country throughway. Along the seemingly ordinary Bray Road just northeast of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, the “Beast of Bray” is said to roam the fields and forests by night. Appearing like a wolf walking on either two or four legs, the giant creature also resembles Bigfoot descriptions, with fangs, claws, and brown and gray fur. (He’s among several alleged Bigfoot encounters in Wisconsin.) The first sighting was reported in 1936. But in the 1980s and 90s there were steady reports of the beast, with reporter Linda Godfrey so convinced of its existence via eye witness accounts, in 2003 she published The Beast of Bray Road: Tailing Wisconsin's Werewolf. 5. I-4, Florida One of the country’s longest haunted highways is a 140-mile length of Florida freeway. Nicknamed the “I-4 dead zone,” Interstate 4 stretches from Orlando to Daytona, where traffic accidents, injuries, and other strange happenings have held strong for more than a half-century. The creepiness began in when interstate construction workers discovered graves from early American settlers who perished from yellow fever. Nevertheless, highway construction continued. Then on opening day, a tractor-trailer that jackknifed near the graves brought the highways’ first fatality. More than 1,500 accidents have plagued the interstate since 1969, not to mention the phantom trucks and cars that have been spotted speeding and crashing there. Hurricanes and tornadoes are said to have traveled exactly along I-4, while alleged hitchhiking apparitions, floating headlights, and freezing asphalt on hot days only add to the freakiness. Motorists: Remember to keep your focus on the road and keep your speed slow and steady, regardless of possible otherworldly roadside attractions.
A 6-Day Trip Itinerary through Southwestern Colorado
As a native-born Virginian, I've traveled up and down the East Coast, putting in time in the Midwest and the Southwest, and on the West Coast as well. But even though it's been high on my list for quite awhile, I'd never been to Colorado, so when the opportunity for a trip presented itself this summer, I couldn't help but jump at the chance. The plan was to cover as much ground as humanly possible in a week, starting in Denver and working my way southwest to Durango—and it was a good plan too, according to pretty much everyone but my mother. "How can they just give a New Yorker a car and turn them loose on those mountain roads?! You don't remember how to drive!" she wailed. Even though that was decidedly untrue, not to mention a base slander of my skills behind the wheel, I invited her to come along for the ride and put her mind at ease. Here's how we spent that week on the road. Day 1: Buena Vista We were due in Buena Vista for a lunch-and-whitewater-rafting date shortly after noon, but before we began the two-and-a-half-hour drive south, we made one last stop at Denver Central Market. After avocado and salmon toasts at Izzio Bakery, plus an almond croissant and a chocolate Kouign-Amann for good measure, we got going. And we were making decent time, too—at least until the two-lane US Highway 285 closed one lane for construction, and we sat in place for nearly an hour. The Arkansas River, as seen from the River Runners family float. (Maya Stanton) As it happened, though, the delay didn’t make much difference. I was scheduled for a half-day excursion through Browns Canyon with River Runners, a local operator with a pull-up bar and restaurant, but the Arkansas River was running so high that my guide shifted me to a more mellow family float. I had been looking forward to hitting the rapids, but between the mountain-studded scenery and the quickly moving currents, I was plenty happy with the trip I got. Back on dry land, we headed into town and checked in at the Surf Hotel, a 62-room property with a shared balcony—complete with rocking chairs—directly overlooking a stretch of the Arkansas. A quick change of clothes later and we were in Wesley & Rose, the lobby bar and restaurant, enjoying happy-hour cocktails, a mean cheese-and-charcuterie board, and bluegrass-tinged music from the four-piece band set up in the corner. Dinner from the Buena Viking food truck, parked at Deerhammer Distillery. (Maya Stanton) A full meal there wouldn’t have gone amiss, but we wanted to see more of Buena Vista itself, so we reluctantly closed our tab. Main Street was a 15-minute walk away and spanned just a few blocks; we paused at the Heritage Museum and its woolly mammoth sculpture and meandered past a busy ice cream shop before we reached our destination: Deerhammer Distilling Company, an artisan grain-to-glass operation bottling straight bourbon, corn and single-malt whiskies, and Dutch-style gin. We ordered a couple of drinks—the citrusy, cucumber-heavy Green Grind and a Moscow Mule made with whiskey instead of vodka—and split a cheeseburger and a boatload of tater tots from the onsite food truck. Full but not done yet, we stopped by the Jailhouse for one last pint before calling it a night; there was a chill in the air and the outdoor fire tables were going full blast, and the scene was so cozy it was tough to turn down another round. Home sweet home, just for one night. (Maya Stanton) But we were rewarded for our self-discipline, such as it was, and arrived back at the hotel just in time to catch the band’s closing number. As the small crowd applauded enthusiastically, we headed upstairs to bed, where the soothing sounds of rushing water soon carried us off to sleep. Day 2: Salida For breakfast the next morning, we made a quick stop at the Buena Vista Roastery Cafe for cortados and thick slices of chorizo, cheddar, and green-chile quiche, and then we were back in the car, bound for a cheesemaking class at Mountain Goat Lodge, about 20 miles south. Cheesemaking at Mountain Goat Lodge, a huge draw. (Maya Stanton) I won’t lie: Hanging out with some goats and learning to make cheese was a major motivating factor in planning this trip as a whole, and my class didn’t disappoint—even though I didn't manage to get there early enough to milk a goat beforehand. The B&B’s chief cheesemaker and co-proprietor, Gina Marcell, led our group of five through the process for chèvre and feta (our consensus, selected from a handful of options), offering copious samples along the way and allotting time with the animals towards the end of the morning. By the time we were finished, I was sourcing fresh goat’s milk in Brooklyn and bookmarking the equipment I’d need online, happily envisioning the concoctions I could create from the comfort of my home kitchen. Then it was on to Salida proper, and a 10-minute drive found us in the heart of downtown, a walkable district with small shops, restaurants, yoga studios, art galleries, and the Arkansas River running right through it all. We sat down at Currents for a satisfying yet somewhat incongruous lunch of green chili and tuna poke, then browsed through a few stores, coveting the great leather and home goods at Howl Mercantile & Coffee and scanning the shelves at the Book Haven before stumbling upon what was undoubtedly the find of the day. The varmints of Bungled Jungle. (Maya Stanton) It didn’t look like much at first glance—a stroller with a mannequin-like figure at the handle—but as we approached, we saw a human-sized purple creature with goofy ears and pink-tipped antennae, and within the stroller itself, a green three-headed baby monster that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Men In Black movie. We had come to the Bungled Jungle, the wildly creative world of local artisans Pat Landreth and Suzanne Montano. Regulars on the renaissance fair circuit, the two make Dr. Seuss-meets-Tim Burton–style varmints and kinetic steampunk sculptures from bits and bobs of mechanical detritus, and the showroom is a great repository of their work. (There’s no fee to enter, but the monsters and their people do accept tips for pics.) We barely had time to check in at our evening’s accommodations before dinner. Located a few minutes from downtown, Amigo Motor Lodge was built in 1958 and reopened in 2016 after a complete overhaul. It’s now a modern minimalist’s dream, with white walls, birch bed frames, subway-tiled bathrooms, and ridiculously comfortable Tuft & Needle mattresses. (There are also four Airstream trailers on the premises, if the concept of close quarters floats your boat.) We cleaned up and drove back to Salida’s historic center, managing to score a patio table at the Fritz with just a few minutes’ wait. It wasn’t exactly local fare, but the small plates were an all-around hit, from pickled quail eggs and grilled heads of romaine with dates and manchego to seared ahi wontons with spicy aioli and a heaping bowl of mussels and fries. We were finishing our meal just as the sun went down, and the cotton-candy sky was pretty much the icing on the cake. Day 3: The San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve One seriously good night’s sleep later (really, those mattresses are no joke), we were up and out the door, on the road by 7:00 am for the 90-minute drive to Zapata Ranch. A 103,000-acre working ranch with a 2,000-bison herd—1,800 free-roaming wild animals, give or take, and 300 cattle—the property is owned by the Nature Conservancy and open to visitors from March through October. Normally, only guests are allowed to take the two-hour bison tour, but we got a special dispensation to tag along, and when the herd crossed right in front of our SUV, it felt like the luckiest morning in recent memory. Cowboys on the move at Zapata Ranch. (Matt DeLorme/@ranchlands) After a simple sack lunch of cold sandwiches, chips, and Arnold Palmers on the ranch deck, we made our way to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, some 15 minutes away. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in May of this year, this particular protected land is a striking anomaly: a towering stretch of sand, eroded from the mountains over thousands of years, with nary a wave in sight—unless you visit during the summer, that is, and the creeks are flowing in your favor. When there’s been ample snowmelt, the Medano spreads around the base of the dunes into a shallow stream, and the crowds come out to play, swimming, floating, and wading while the water levels hold. But that’s not the park’s only attraction. With hiking, camping, and ranger-led programs like “Great Women of Great Sand Dunes” and after-dark telescope viewing, there’s plenty to see and do year-round. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is a must-see. (Maya Stanton) Water in hand, we trekked out to the creek in the afternoon sun and got our feet wet before moving on to our next stop. The San Luis Valley is home to a number of kitschy roadside attractions, but the UFO Watchtower in Hooper was top of my list. Even before owner Judy Messoline built a viewing platform and opened her property to UFO-chasers back in 2000, the site was reportedly a hotbed of alien activity. According to sign on the premises quoting more than two dozen psychics, that’s thanks to two vortexes—energy-filled openings to a parallel universe—on the east side of the tower. There’s a small garden filled with knickknacks left by visitors hoping to harness some of that extraterrestrial energy, and a gift shop selling alien-themed gear; we paid our $5 entry fee, snapped a few photos, picked up a shot glass, and got back on the road. The yurts at Joyful Journey let you rough it without giving up all creature comforts. (Maya Stanton) Our final destination for the day was Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa, a local hotspot—literally—in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A tranquil setup boasting three mineral-rich, non-sulfuric pools untouched by chlorine or other chemicals, it’s the polar opposite of the state’s more polished commercial springs, with $10 all-day soaks on Tuesdays and clothing-optional Wednesday evenings. It has a lodge, RV sites, tipis, and camping sites, but we opted for a yurt, decked out with a proper bed, a small seating area, and both a fan and a heater for hot days and cold nights. We spent some time hopping from pool to pool, making small talk with our fellow soakers, before grabbing a light supper of homemade soup and salad (complimentary with our stay). With blessedly little else to do, we unplugged and called it a night—until a few hours later, when we had to put on our shoes and venture out to the communal bathhouse. A chilly proposition to be sure, but well worth it for the unbelievable, light-pollution-free galactic display we witnessed on the way. Day 4: Pagosa Springs and Durango The following morning, I woke to the sun shining through our yurt’s domed skylight and a constellation of itchy bug bites covering my legs. As it turns out, standing in a field to take pictures of the sunset in just a robe and a bathing suit is....not a great idea, particularly in peak sand-fly season. But no matter—we had a fairly leisurely day, for a change, and I was determined to make the most of it. The road from Moffat to Pagosa Springs. (Maya Stanton) We set off west for the tiny town of Pagosa Springs, my mother nervously checking her GPS as she directed me through the precarious switchbacks of Highway 160, slowing us to a near-crawl as we approached Wolf Creek Pass, named the state’s most dangerous by the Durango Herald a few years back. Located some 18 miles east of Pagosa, with terrifying 200-foot drop-offs and frequent avalanches during the winter months, the pass isn’t to be attempted by inexperienced drivers when there’s snow on the ground. But we came out the other side of the San Juan Mountains into downtown Pagosa Springs without a scratch, following the curves of the San Juan River to the Springs Resort & Spa. A slick facility overlooking the river, with 23 geothermal pools—the most in the state, fed by the deepest geothermal hot spring in the world—as well as locker rooms, restaurants, bars, and a well-stocked gift shop, the Springs offered a decidedly different experience from what we’d encountered at Joyful Journey the night before. We compared and contrasted the two for a few hours, dipping in and out of pools of varying temperatures, before caving to our lunchtime cravings. Ultimately, we were bound for Durango, and on our way out of town, we stopped at Mee Hmong Cuisine for the midday special—giant chili-garlic shrimp and sweet-savory pork ribs, served with rice, salad or edamame, and vegetable summer rolls for just $12 a pop. It was a welcome change from the fare we’d had thus far, and we cleaned our plates accordingly. Back on 160 for another white-knuckling drive, we pulled into Durango an hour later, adrenaline still pumping as we navigated the city streets. The old Western movie–inspired Rochester Hotel was a sight for sore eyes, with film posters and memorabilia throughout the rooms and halls and a plate of fresh-baked cookies available for the taking. We collapsed in relief for a bit, then rallied for an evening out on the town. Right downstairs, a design store called Artesanos beckoned, all rustic-beamed ceilings and eclectic home furnishings, but luckily for both my bank account and my near-bursting suitcase, they were closing up shop for the day. Instead, we rolled down to Main Avenue, picking up tiny truffles from Animas Chocolate Co. and admiring the elegant paintings and delicate contemporary glass, pottery, jewelry, and sculpture from Karyn Gabaldon’s fine-art gallery. At Buckley Park, a crowd had gathered for the free Thursday-night concert, and the sidewalks were full of folks making the most of the sunny evening. We finally commandeered a table on the picturesque patio at Cyprus Café, right across the street from our hotel, tucking into meze like baba ghanoush, tzatziki, and grape leaves alongside super-cheesy stuffed poblanos in a smoky tomato brodo. Stretching our legs after our meal, we found ourselves outside of a small barbershop a few blocks away. A nattily dressed doorman asked us for the password, and as we uttered the magic words (found on the website a few hours earlier), he led us through a hidden door in a wall of books and into the Bookcase & Barber, a speakeasy with meticulously composed literary-themed craft cocktails. One Faulkner (a mint julep) and one Temple of the Sun (aji amarillo-infused pisco with tequila, guava, lemon, and ginger) later, and we were finally ready to call it a night. Day 5: Silverton and the San Juan Mountains On Friday, we were booked for an 8:00 am ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, so we were downstairs for French toast with powdered sugar, honey butter, and raspberry sauce by 7:00 sharp. Onboard, the circa-1880 train moved through town as people waved from balconies and backyards as we slowly but surely barreled past. As we chugged up the mountain, around alpine lakes and federally protected national forest, the best views were out the windows on the right—something to consider when you’re reserving your seats. The engine of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. (Maya Stanton)Forty-five miles and three-and-a-half hours later, we arrived in Silverton, an old mining town with a few blocks of hotels, restaurants, and shops. Our first stop was for spicy pork tacos at Avalanche Brewing Company, followed closely by a visit to K & C Traders, a jewelry store recommended by our train car’s attendant for its impressive array of Astorite, the pink-ore gemstones named for mine owner Jacob Astor IV. With a purchase under our belts, we picked up a snack of pulled pork and cornbread at Thee Pitts Again, a barbecue restaurant that once featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, before venturing down Greene Street to the new Wyman Hotel for a peek at the hipster-cool accommodations. The tiny town of Silverton is a mountain-lover's dream. (Maya Stanton) There, we met a representative from Durango who shuttled us back down the mountain via the the San Juan Skyway Scenic and Historic Byway, a 236-mile route that passes through the mountain towns of Telluride and Ouray before looping south to Mesa Verde National Park and Durango. We stopped off for a quick hike at Cascade Creek, a short trail with a sparkling waterfall dropping 150 into a swimming hole below, before hitting Purgatory Resort, a winter destination that transforms ski slopes into hiking and mountain-biking trails in the offseason. Before the park closed, we just managed to fit in a ride on the Inferno mountain coaster, a 4,000-foot-long trip that’s you personally control through a sequence of loops, drops, and switchbacks, all set against a backdrop of incredible mountain scenery. The thrill ride whetted our whistles, and our next stop was Nugget Bar for an après pint. A renovated cabin with fire pits and mountain views, it was just the thing to cap off a busy day—but we weren’t quite done yet. Back in Durango, we had reservations at Primus, a new restaurant on Main with a mouthwatering menu of wild game, fresh seafood, and local produce. Between the smoke-cured egg yolks and the tangy lemon and caper, our bison tartare was impeccable, and a salad with grilled turnips and seasonal berries provided a much-needed dose of green. A beautifully plated duck breast on white-corn and pancetta grits rounded out our meal, and we went to bed full and happy. Day 6: Mancos and Mesa Verde National Park Our final day in Colorado was a race against time. We left Durango at 6:30 am and were parking in front of Absolute Bakery, in the one-stoplight town of Mancos, by the time it opened at 7. We dashed in and grabbed coffee and potato-and-egg strudels (one Greek with tomato, feta, spinach, and kalamata olives, one southwest with cheddar, ham, and green chile) to go, jumping back in the car as quickly as possible. We were rushing to make it to Mesa Verde National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage site that served as home to the Ancestral Pueblo people for some 700 years, boasting thousands of archaeological marvels at altitudes of 7,000 to 8,500 feet—for an 8:00 tour, and it was always going to be tight timing, especially given the terrifying, cliff-hugging 45-minute drive from the park entrance to the tour’s departure point at Far View Lodge. But we pulled into the lot with mere minutes to spare, joining our group in a small van for an extensive four-hour deep-dive into the park’s most important historical sites. Led by a National Association for Interpretation guide, the tour proceeded in chronological order from the footprint of a circa-AD 600 Pithouse village—the earliest recorded in human history—to the Pueblo-era cliff dwellings from the 13th century. The crowning moment was the descent to the magnificent Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park and a truly stunning site to behold. Mesa Verde's Cliff Palace is simply stunning. (Maya Stanton) After a trip down from the plateau that was just as nail-biting—and thankfully, just as uneventful—as the trip up, we set our sights on the Canyon of the Ancients Museum in Dolores, a little less than 60 miles to the north. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, with fascinating exhibits on local history and Native American culture as well as two 12th-century sites and a nature trail offering expansive skyline views from its peak, the small archaeological museum made the short detour worthwhile. Our final meal in Colorado. (Maya Stanton) From there, we backtracked to Mancos for a leisurely stroll through the tiny historic downtown district. The sidewalks were deserted and the boutiques and galleries were mostly closed, but we window-shopped our way down the street nonetheless. The highly rated Olio, a gallery-restaurant-wine bar hybrid, was our first-choice dinner option, but the cozy space didn’t have any seats available, so we found our way to the Fenceline Cider taproom and wrapped our trip on a casual note. We would depart from Durango the next morning, so over flights of hard cider and basic, tasty Greek fare—gyros and salads from the food truck stationed at the entrance—we toasted to a most successful journey. It had truly been a heck of a week.
The United States is renowned for its plethora of jaw-droppingly beautiful stretches of highway. In fact, for many travelers, the very word "America" conjures images not of bustling cities or world-class museums (though the US offers no shortage of them) but of iconic roads such as California’s Highway 1, the Southeast’s Blue Ridge Parkway, and Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. But what about the lesser-known American drives? The ones that aren’t necessarily jam-packed with road trip enthusiasts but nevertheless offer gorgeous scenery, family-friendly fun, education, and even cultural enlightenment? Here, six outstanding “secret” drives that travelers will love to boast about “discovering.” Big Bend, Texas Big Bend National Park, along the Texas border with Mexico, is often overshadowed by its more famous fellow parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. But a road trip through this gorgeous environment, with its limestone cliffs, scenic overlooks, and Rio Grande River, is a unique way to experience the American landscape. As with many US national parks, Big Bend includes small “villages” that can serve as handy milestones in planning a drive. One option is the Panther Junction-to-Rio Grande Village drive, about 21 miles (34km) passing ancient limestone, scenic overlooks, and opportunities for stopping for a short hike at Boquillas Canyon or the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail. Cherokee Hills, Oklahoma This is a lesser-known road trip that provides a healthy dose of cultural education as well. The Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in eastern Oklahoma, runs about 84 miles (135km), so set aside at least two hours for the drive. But the best approach is to make many stops along the way. You’ll see some of the oldest buildings west of the Mississippi River, many predating the state of Oklahoma itself; five small towns; the Cherokee Heritage Center, where visitors learn about the painful history of the Trail of Tears but also about the modern-day initiatives of the Cherokee Nation; and natural wonders including Lake Tenkiller and Natural Falls State Park. Door County, Wisconsin The Door County peninsula, sometimes called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” is a narrow, beautiful stretch of land between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Its Coastal Byway (Highway 42/57) is a Wisconsin Scenic Byway, covering more than 60 miles (97km) passing through the towns of Sturgeon Bay and Northport. Here, visitors discover the natural beauty and relaxing pace of this prized corner of Wisconsin – including farms known for their fresh cherries, a summer theater festival, and charming communities that hug the lakeshore, offering great food (including house-made ice cream), unique shopping, and forests perfect for easy hikes. Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway Sure, Delaware is one of the smallest states in the US, but it packs plenty of history and natural beauty. The Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway, in northern Delaware, takes visitors past sights as diverse as the city of Wilmington and the beautiful countryside. Officially only 12 miles (19km) along the Kennett Pike and Montchanin Road, the byway focuses on the 300-year history of the Brandywine Valley and its role in the industrial revolution and the growth of transportation across the early United States. Consider the byway as your introduction to the larger Brandywine Valley region, which stretches into Pennsylvania and includes an array of important historical homes with great art collections, such as the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library; the Nemours Mansion and Garden; the Brandywine River Museum; and the Delaware Museum of Art. Beartooth Highway, Wyoming & Montana Warning: once you’ve driven the Beartooth Highway, which adjoins Yellowstone National Park and is surrounded by national forests and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, you may be spoiled forever. The highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, is a winding route up into the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains – achieving an elevation over 10,000ft (3,000 meters) at its zenith, it’s the highest highway in the northern Rocky Mountains – with peerless scenic overlooks, glacial lakes, waterfalls, and, before you ascend back down, a high alpine plateau above the treeline. Set aside a few hours to truly enjoy the 67 miles (108km) of highway, and get to know one of the gateway communities such as Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana, or Cody, Wyoming. Mississippi Blues Trail, Mississippi For an immersion in one of America’s original art forms, the blues, head to Clarksdale, Mississippi, gateway to the Mississippi Blues Trail. Although you’ll see the beautiful sights of the legendary Mississippi Delta along the way, the Blues Trail is not primarily a scenic drive but rather a set of interpretive markers and cultural institutions that visitors can navigate to create their own personalized road trip devoted to Mississippi’s incredible musical legacy. The trip’s mileage and time frame are entirely up to you. Highlights include Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum (where you’ll learn about local luminaries Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson) and Ground Zero Blues Cafe; Indianola’s B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center and Club Ebony (for blues music and soul food); and Greenwood’s Blues Heritage Gallery and excellent restaurants in the historic downtown district.
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